Wanted: Non-Academic Scientists

Having spent the last couple of posts talking (in part) about the need to change academic culture, and de-stigmatize non-academic science jobs, here's an attempt to step up and do something direct and productive. No, this won't cost you anything.

One of the difficulties with trying to broaden the usual definition of scientists is that there's not a lot of press for non-academic science. Academic culture is so strongly focused on academic careers that people don't hear a lot about careers outside the usual Ph.D-postdoc-tenure-track-job track. Which helps feed the stress and angst regarding the job market.

And here I am with this public platform, read by many dozens of people (I average 2-3,000 hits a day, according to Google Analytics), a fair fraction of whom are students whole will face career choices in the future. So I'll offer this up for the purpose of publicizing those other career tracks.

I will post a series of interviews with non-academic scientists about what they do, and how they got their jobs

Of course, to do this, I need help from you:

If you:

  1. Have a degree (graduate or undergraduate) in a scientific subject,
  2. Have a non-academic job that you find rewarding
  3. Think young science majors might benefit from knowing about your type of job, and
  4. Are willing to answer questions about your job and see them posted on this blog

Then send me an email (orzelc at steelypips, which is an org not a com), and we'll talk. I'll ask some questions, you answer them, and I'll post the results here.

"Non-academic" in this context means "not as a faculty member in a college or university science department." "Science" here means "one or more of the fields or sub-fields of natural science: physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, geology, and so on."

I'd obviously prefer to hear from people with a physics background, because I'm more likely to understand what you do, but I'll take what I can get. If you have a science degree and a career off the academic science track, send me an email, send me an email, and let's see if we can help broaden the concept of science a little.

More like this

Maybe also suggest e-mailing a link to this page to friends you have in such positions as well.

By ponderingfool@… (not verified) on 16 Jul 2009 #permalink

I'm happy to see you welcome those with graduate *or* undergraduate science degrees in this project. Way too often for my liking is a discussion about jobs for scientists limited to Ph.D. holders.

Don't forget the lab technicians ...

By mediajackal (not verified) on 16 Jul 2009 #permalink

As someone finishing up a PhD and still undecided about whether to go acadamic or not, this will be so useful. Can't wait to see the interviews. Obviously I can't help with finding anyone to interview since we grad students are kept far away from anyone out there in the real world.

Will you open it up to mathematicians, too? I myself pretty much expect to stay in academia (I like it here!) but I'd like to see what other mathematicians are doing (especially if their areas of interest are in the direction of "pure" math).

What mediajackal said. I work for a BigPharma company, and we're always on the lookout for PhD's to fill positions in molecular discovery, oncological development, and other research departments. They're usually the ones to initiate the experiments, and lab techs/scientists (like myself) do the bulk of the work. What might seem weird to readers of this blog, is that since I've always been in this industry, when I hear "PhD" I automatically associate it with someone in a lab, and NOT academics.

Oh well...
I have a degree in chemistry and work as a community manager at scilogs.de (a scienceblogging site run by Spektrum der Wissenschaft), additionally I do some science journalism and work on projects for various customers. Like preparing a conference blogging project for the german chemical society (it hasn't really started yet, so only test entries to see there). I`m not getting rich but it's fun and I can do whatever I want.

I don't know how useful that would be for US scientists, though. It only works because the german internet is considerably less developed than, basically, everything else.

My dad has a Ph.D. in botany. He's the Curator of the Herbarium for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. If you like, I could tell him about this and you could possibly use him for an interview.

By Regnirrab (not verified) on 16 Jul 2009 #permalink

My dad has a Ph.D. in botany. He's the Curator of the Herbarium for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. If you like, I could tell him about this and you could possibly use him for an interview.

By Regnirrab (not verified) on 16 Jul 2009 #permalink

My last comment apparently got caught in the spam filter because I included links. I'd appreciate it if you'd take a look in there, so I don't have to write it again. Thanks.

That's not very scientific.... I think you should interview individuals that are not happy with their jobs as well. Sometimes you need to know what to avoid, too. Heck, a random sampling might be best.

I am curious how this experiment will turn out. Science is pretty hard to define, even when using sociological identifiers like a faculty position in a research university. Might be interesting to observe who is and is not considered a scientist once you strip out the most obvious way to tell the difference.

Retired chemist, worked for Dupont for 35 yrs including research, technical service, shift supervision.
Volunteer in local HS chemistry class, sometime science columnist. Chairman of local science fair.

Good idea, since 2/3 of physics PhDs don't work in academia (the way the AIP defines it, academia includes research faculty jobs as well as pure teaching or t-t R1 faculty). The AIP has great data on where people work, going back decades, but no anecdotes.

FYI, my friend's jobs range from Bell Labs to the aerospace industry, generally not doing anything directly related to their thesis work and generally pretty happy except when there are major restructurings (periodic layoffs) in aerospace.

One thing you can do, Chad, is keep up with ALL of your BS grads regardless of where they end up. One reason faculty don't know about those other careers is that they don't keep up with the grads who don't go into academia because they don't see them at meetings.

Yup, just because you are not doing a PhD, working at a university or breaking new ground in something doesn't mean you can't communicate science. I like to think I've done some via my livejournal, and also at my previous job when strictly speaking there were only 2 of us in the company with actual science degrees, therefore if something happened in production we had to try and explain it using small words and easily understood concepts which nevertheless could be traced back to the science.

Although my title is "Scientist", I have to be careful, because, lacking a PhD, my use of the term to describe myself offends some people. Call me a researcher, then. At any rate, I'm taking more graduate courses where and how I can, and if I can finagle a few things with a local school the way it looks I might be able to, the PhD will come. We'll see. The honorific will be purely for my own edification, at any rate, as my superiors are unlikely to advance me any more quickly or slowly because of it, now that I'm already well-established.

I work for a biotech company. I agonized over the decision to take that route as opposed to trying for med. school or getting the biochem PhD my old bosses told me I should (I worked as a kind of strange tech-fellow hybrid in a couple academic labs before going over to the dark side). Pretty much what it boiled down to was I waited too long to make up my mind, met a great woman before I got my head screwed on the right way, concluded I wanted to do science AND have a life with her in the Boston area, and so took the plunge. Looking back, I think I could have been happy doing many different things, but I don't at all regret the path I ultimately chose.

I wish I could sagely advise someone else that industry science (biotech in my case) is the right or wrong way to go, or even that it doesn't matter. IMO, that's an impossible task, and I'd be suspicious of anyone who thought otherwise. I certainly didn't know if it was the best thing for me at the time, hence my great trepidation.

One thing I do know is the impression of industry science as primitive, repetitive, stultifying, and a haven for losers and also-rans, that the majority of my erstwhile academic colleagues held, is not universally applicable. Whatever one might say about me, many of my current colleagues are highly intelligent, accomplished, and productive scientists with publication records that rival many respectable second-tier academic investigators. The reason they do not attain first-tier status is because there is, of course, a lack of complete freedom to pursue every interesting discovery. Where I work, however, we do have a great deal of freedom to publish and present not only the very practical results of our work, but also many of the novel findings that we make along the way, even if doing so provides no obvious benefit to the company's bottom line. In fact, we're strongly encouraged to do so, as our management feels it enhances the prestige of our company, and keeps us engaged with academic investigators, who we rely on for ideas that lie well beyond the scope of our mandate as a publicly-traded, for-profit business.

So, sure, there are some trade-offs, though I don't think they need to be seen in as dire a light as some may portray them. If you want absolute freedom to pursue whatever idea you wish, industry is probably not for you. If you want to have a job that provides perhaps a clearer career path than your first post-doctoral fellowship is likely to, then maybe industry is worth a look. There are industry post-doctoral fellowships, too, for the people who want to keep their options open a bit longer. The possibilities, both for good and bad, are endless, and the choices you make can have such a profound impact on where you wind up, to presume I or anyone else could navigate you through that maze of options without peril would be hubris, IMO. Know thyself, and be prepared to take risks. To presume either course is more or less risky than the other would be a mistake.

Lastly, there's just dumb luck, and who can account for that? I consider myself very lucky. I work on things I like, with great people. Even when their credentials far outstrip my own, they treat me with a respect and collegiality that is both humbling and deeply gratifying. Do I have bad days, occasional personal clashes, feel myself chaffing under authority sporadically, endure periods of intellectual malaise where I make no progress for months and doubt my own abilities, or worse, the judgement of my superiors? Absolutely. I hear that's not so unusual anywhere, but YMMV. Some of what I've seen in academia leaves me wistful now and then, when I think of what I might have done. Then again, I've seen things that filled me with such angst and dread I thank my lucky stars I'm where I am at least as frequently. The rest of the time I'm just a happy camper, not worried too much about hypotheticals, and content to busy myself with the task at hand. If there's more I could have asked for out of my professional life without a prodigious sense of entitlement, I kind of doubt it. But only you can know what's right for you, and I mean that most emphatically.

By Low Math, Meek… (not verified) on 19 Jul 2009 #permalink

While I would gladly do the interview, I don't think my job is something that is very widespread (yet) and thus useful as an open option for recent graduates (after all, you need to become a kick-ass blogger first, then proceed). Actually, it is pretty unique. And I already answered these exact types of career questions in interview with Caryn Schectman on Nature Network a few months ago.

I am SO looking forward to these interviews! I finished my bachelor's degree in neurobiology and I've been working in research for 2 years now and as a math/science tutor for 3. Lately I've found myself looking for other avenues to take, since I am starting to be turned off by a lot of aspects of a prospective academic career, and yearning for a way to do something a bit more hands-on/interactive than sitting in front of a computer/microscope all day. I don't want to become a teacher and I also don't want to do this for the next 10+ years of my life, but I have no idea what other options there are, and even less of an idea of where to start if I want to pursue them. I'm starting to consider switching career paths completely. So I guess I am your target audience :) can't wait to read the interviews!

By Julia Udell (not verified) on 23 Jul 2009 #permalink

I can be interviewed. Pick me! Pick me! Me! Me!

I've sent you an email, btw.

By Roman Werpachowski (not verified) on 02 Aug 2009 #permalink

I'm looking for a website where people can post theories and research, which could be reviewed by professional reviewers, who ask permission from the poster to submit formal reviews after they give their credentials, but also open to public discussion and debate, in all fields of science and human knowledge. The website can have an "established" set of reviewers who would scrutinize the results, and give there own reflection. In fields where there is a lot of fraud, like "over-unity" - there would be a marking with a warning. The site would have no entries on technology, only science.

Rather than removing articles with a POV, this website would simply point to the POV and its origins.

Highly implausible theories as well as "hate theories" will be unacceptable, and will be removed.

By Moshe Flam (not verified) on 30 Mar 2011 #permalink